By Peter J. Dellolio
Filmic space and real time in Alfred Hitchcock’s
R O P E
By Peter J. Dellolio
The remaining camera movements that create some dramatic or psychological intricacy are a) as the camera pans to the left in a medium long-shot of Mrs. Wilson entering and exiting the living room as she finishes cleaning and gets closer and closer to opening the chest; Rupert is at the extreme right of the frame and everyone is discussing David’s possible whereabouts, b) after Mrs. Atwater speaks to Mrs. Kentley, informing Mr. Kentley how upset his wife is and that she wants him to contact the police: the camera curves past Mrs. Atwater, Janet, and Kenneth, isolating first Brandon, then Philip extremely agitated, and finally Rupert looking on with fearful apprehension, c) as the doorbell rings when Rupert comes back and the camera pand away from Brandon to the door: Brandon’s hand enters the frame from the left and there is a close-up of his revolver as he checks the chamber, and d) the series of camera movements that illustrate Rupert’s hypothetical account of what may have happened if Brandon and Philip had wanted to “kidnap” David.
The shot in which Brandon’s hand suddenly appears within the frame with the gun is another example of the economy of suggestion through synecdoche and off-screen space. “Brandon, it’s not loaded, is it?!” asks Philip nervously as Brandon flips the barrel to reveal all six bullets in place. The ring of the doorbell announcing Rupert’s presence, Brandon’s hand holding the gun, Philip’s off-screen panic: in the several seconds that these confluent elements are grouped together, the viewer is given a psychological composite of Brandon’s potentially lethal defense of his actions and Rupert’s attempt to find out the truth. Again we see that cutting from close-ups of the door to the gun to Philip would destroy the visual and emotional complexity.
Granger, Stewart and Dall: time to hide the knives
When Rupert suggests what may have occurred, given his speculation that Brandon and Philip could have kidnapped David, the camera responds to Rupert’s narrative by covering the areas that he describes. The camera moves across the top of the armchair when Rupert assumes that it would have been necessary to knock David unconscious; it goes into the foyer when Rupert indicates how David would have been greeted and that his hat would be taken; it pans across the liquor bottles as Rupert suggests that David would have been offered a drink; it tracks in on the piano when Rupert surmises that Philip would play; it moves across the room towards the chest when Rupert ponders the best place to hide David, etc. Here we have a more simplistic version of a category of camera movement that Hitchcock uses frequently. The camera will demonstrate the particulars of a group of related elements or it will characterize the nature of a given situation: the pan across all of the photographer’s cameras at the beginning of Notorious; the camera movements that note the newspaper with the hidden $40,000 and Norman’s (Anthony Perkins) house in Psycho after Marion (Janet Leigh) is killed; the encircling of the courtyard and Jeff’s (James Stewart) apartment at the beginning of Rear Window. Throughout these examples and many others, Hitchcock gives the camera a kind of independence: he was sensitive to the fact that a moving camera will automatically call attention to itself, therefore he is careful to make very self-contained, economical statements that encapsulate, inquire, or explore. The camera will never made idle observations; everything it shows is connected to some critical element of the narrative. During these types of camera movements in Hitchcock’s work, there is also the sense of an authorial commentary.
There is some circularity of form in Rope
, and one may note that the pan that begins with Mrs. Atwater’s admonition to Mr. Kentley that he must call the police, which then encompasses all of the characters, has its counterpart in the pan discussed above, where Mrs. Atwater thinks that Kenneth is David. In the first example there is Mrs. Atwater’s obvious pleasure in thinking that David is there; this positive emotion animates the pan. In the second example, Mrs. Atwater has just gotten off the phone with Mrs. Kentley who is now
hysterical that no one has heard from her son; the pan again uses Mrs. Atwater to initiate its movement but here its thrust is panic and the decision to contact the authorities. In both instances the camera also canvasses the assembled characters, in this case highlighting their critical observation that something must be seriously wrong by isolating Brandon, Philip, and Rupert, each of whom has disturbed expressions.
The pan from all of the characters except Mrs. Atwater, who is speaking to Mrs. Kentley in the bedroom, isolates Rupert at the right edge of the frame and Mrs. Wilson who makes several trips from the chest to the kitchen as she clears everything away. The camera holds a stationary long-shot from the chest, showing the remainder of the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. The view’s attention is pointedly divided by this cleverly arranged restriction of information: as the characters discuss David’s prior actions and wonder about his possible present whereabouts, only Rupert is visible, virtually cut in half by the right of the frame. It is Rupert who leads the inquiry about David, particularly in his probing questions to Brandon and Philip. None of the characters, including Rupert, is paying any attention to Mrs. Wilson who, as she brings the last of the books from the dining room, is clearly about to open the chest. She starts to lift it and Rupert offers to help her as Brandon suddenly enters the frame to explain that Mrs. Wilson must come back in the morning to replace the books. Here the counterpoint between the assembled characters discussing David, who remain off-screen, and Mrs. Wilson, moving towards the opening of the chest, is a very articulate demonstration of the ambivalence experienced by the viewer. With Rupert’s position within the frame serving as a kind of bridge between Mrs. Wilson and the other characters, especially given that Brandon’s and Philip’s answers to Rupert’s questions are so flimsy and self-conscious, the viewer becomes sensitized to the multiple possibilities that the visual suspense suggests. There is the possibility that Mrs. Wilson will finally open the chest; that Philip will break down; that Brandon might not notice what Mrs. Wilson is about to do; that Mrs. Wilson might stop her duties just short of putting the books back; that Rupert might turn around to help Mrs. Wilson. The on-screen/off-screen dynamics of the long-shot make viewer identification multidimensional and emotionally disruptive.
draws many of its attributes and, unfortunately, its difficulties, from opposition. Throughout the film, the viewer’s moral indignation at David’s senseless murder committed for “intellectual” reasons remain at odds with the visual process that involves the viewer in the actions of the characters. Like the interrogation scenes from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil
uses uninterrupted camera movements to create a particular relationship between off-screen and on-screen material. On a more pedestrian level, this methodology also operates throughout the dialogue even when there is no interplay between on-screen and off-screen material. When Kenneth expresses surprise that Brandon is serving champagne, he asks “It isn’t someone’s birthday, is it?” Brandon glibly replies “It’s really almost the opposite.” Later Brandon tells Kenneth, speaking of Janet, “I have the oddest feeling anyway that your chances with the young lady are much better than you think,” referring to Janet’s supposed interest in David. When Brandon suggests that Kenneth bring a glass of champagne to Janet who is phoning Mrs. Kentley in the bedroom, Kenneth jokes: “Then you’d like David to come in!” to which Brandon replies “No, that would be too much of a shock.” Kenneth asks Philip when he arrives “Been up to much lately?” Philip answers “Nothing to speak of,” adding later “I’m to be ‘locked up,’” i.e. that he will be shut away to practice for his recital. Rupert comments on Janet who is clearly upset by Brandon’s machinations: “She seems to be missing David,” to which Brandon woodenly replies “Aren’t…we…all.” In a medium close-up of Janet and Kenneth, with the candelabra atop the chest in the foreground, Janet asks anxiously, “Oh, where’s David?!” As Mr. Kentley leaves, Brandon tells him “Would you call me as soon as you hear from David?” and so on.
As stated earlier, the monstrous inhumanity of David’s murder is registered upon the viewer by proxy. It is quickly established that David has no siblings: “David’s her only child, Mr. Kentley,” says Janet, trying to excuse Mrs. Kentley’s overprotective nature. “He’s my only child too but I’m willing to let him grow up,” replies Mr. Kentley. He meekly attempts to explain his wife’s absence: “As usual…it’s a cold this time,” implying a tendency toward hypochondriac worry that is apparently transferred to her son. It is Mrs. Kentley who wants David to call her when he arrives and who becomes frantic when there is no word from him. Mr. Kentley stops mid-sentence, commenting on David’s uncharacteristic disappearance: “This isn’t like David…he…” before leaving Brandon’s apartment so consumed with concern that he forgets to take the first editions Brandon has given him. It is often maintained that Hitchcock lacks a sense of humanity or compassion in his depiction of the lives of his characters, but that is not so. The pathos of David’s mother and father; that they will have to cope with the special horror of loss that befalls only child parents, all of this is economically yet sensitively introduced into the narrative. In a medium shot of Brandon, with Janet and Mr. Kentley sitting on the sofa behind him, we hear Mr. Kentley’s compliment about Brandon: “What a charming young man. I wish David saw more of him.” Overhearing this, Brandon nods his head approvingly. Many examples of this kind emphasize Brandon’s deranged assiduity and etiquette that are part of the “fun” for the evening. Hitchcock makes these moments skip by so that the viewer is quietly reminded of the terrible reality that lies beneath the surface.
While the double-entendre is not a particularly sophisticated formal device, these examples do suggest that Hitchcock wanted the viewer to experience some unpleasantness as a result of his/her knowledge of the crime. This depiction grows progressively darker while at the same time it is the viewer and the viewer alone, until the film’s conclusion, which possesses knowledge of the murder. (9)
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9. Gottlieb, pg. 114. “Let ‘em Play God.” ‘The audience knows everything from the start, the players know nothing. There is not a single detail to puzzle the audience. No one on the screen knows except the two murderers. The fact that the audience watches actors go blithely through an atmosphere that is loaded with evil makes for real suspense.’ (Back)